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How Can Trump Fix His Campaign? By Governing Better.

Jonathan Bernstein

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What’s wrong with President Donald Trump’s campaign? That seemed to have been the big theme of the weekend, as in this long Washington Post story, which includes the detail that Trump himself is obsessed with what denigrating nickname he should use for his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

In reality, there’s probably nothing important wrong with Trump’s campaign. But there are several things wrong with his presidency. And, more important, there are a few things going seriously wrong for the nation: the coronavirus outbreak, the economic disaster that has followed and the injustice that has pushed protesters out into the streets. Those things will all likely affect the election far more than both campaigns put together, to say nothing of the president’s choice of insults.

Trump probably can’t do much about systemic racism in time for it to help him in November, but he certainly could be a whole lot more aggressive about controlling the virus. And while the government’s reaction to the economic collapse in March seems to have been reasonably successful, since then Trump has effectively sided with the “wait and see” Senate Republicans rather than doing whatever it takes to get things moving again. Overall, his approach to both the pandemic and the recession since mid-April has been to wish them away — an approach that now has case levels at record highs and reopening suspended or reversing in several areas. 

This isn’t really about Trump. It’s about the larger issues. I’ve been saying for some time that it’s not clear how the “fundamentals” — that is, factors other than the candidates and campaigns — will work this year. Perhaps voters would be willing to overlook a recession if it’s caused by a pandemic; perhaps they wouldn’t. But what I have little doubt about is that those fundamentals will be extremely important, that campaigns are relatively unimportant and therefore that each individual campaign decision is almost completely irrelevant. What slogan to use? Where, when and how often to hold rallies? What insults to hurl? Some pundits may spend time assessing those things, but there’s just not very much evidence that they make any difference. Jobless statistics? Those matter.

The president’s main focus, then, really should be on better governing, not the trivia of campaigning. In an extremely close race, it’s certainly possible that lots of decisions with small effects could in aggregate be enough to swing the whole thing. So it makes sense for both campaigns to give it their best shot. But presidents have a job to do, and the good news is that doing the job well actually tends to help them win a second term. The bad news is that Trump seems to believe third-rate pundits and his own self-aggrandizing interpretation of the 2016 campaign — and thus is focused way more on spinning reality than on actually improving it. 1. Nate Persily and Charles Stewart III on what could go wrong with in-person voting in November. One thing needed: a major campaign to get people to volunteer to work the polls on Election Day. Hey, celebrities! This is a worthwhile cause to champion.

2. Kim Yi Dionne and Boniface Dulani on elections in Malawi.

3. Solomon Messing argues that Trump’s chances are better than they seem. 

4. Josh Bivens on the danger to the economy in allowing the generous unemployment insurance in the CARES act to lapse.

5. Caroline Randall Williams on monuments and what we remember.

6. Harry Enten on Trump’s unpopularity.

7. I tend to agree with Megan McArdle on Trump and the virus. I’d say we certainly can judge him harshly on the communications side right from the start, but it’s hard to know the baseline for assessing other errors early on. That is, it’s easy to spot mistakes; it’s a lot more difficult to guess how many mistakes the average administration would’ve made in similar circumstances, and how damaging they would’ve been. But as time goes on, the average administration surely would improve a lot more than this one has.

8. And Jennifer Senior on Trump and Newt Gingrich. Very nice, but I have to point out that like several other southern Republicans of his generation, Gingrich isn’t from the South at all; he’s originally from Pennsylvania.

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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